We have a host of well-intentioned initiatives that would benefit from far more coordination, and by grounding them with a rights-based approach.

There are different faces of sexual violence against children – some get a lot of attention and others remain hidden and under-reported. There’s been news coverage of how RCMP officers have been able to trap and charge perpetrators of online sexual exploitation of children by posing as users of websites that host images of child sexual abuse. It is a sophisticated, high-tech approach to child protection against one form of sexual violence. But less well known is the fact that sexual violence within the family is on the rise in Canada. It increased between 2017 and 2018, according to a recently posted analysis by the Statistics Canada publication Juristat as part of a look at police-reported violence against children. Non-family police-reported abuse of children declined between 2009 and 2018, though these numbers are lower than the reality because incidents are under-reported, a point agreed upon by researchers.

Sexual violence against children is likely even more prevalent than self-reported surveys suggest. Approximately 12 percent of girls and 4 percent of boys over age 15 have reported that they experienced sexual violence in their childhoods. But survey methods, definitions and age ranges can all produce different statistics on the prevalence of sexual violence against children.

On the level of public policy and programs, Canada has a piecemeal approach to dealing with sexual violence against children. Separate programs with few connections are employed to deal with online sexual exploitation, child prostitution, dating violence, the use of sexual images in cyberbullying, or domestic violence. This approach leaves gaps and lacks a strong and coherent focus on prevention, which is essential to reduce the vulnerability of children to sexual violence and other forms of violence.

Effective prevention needs to address the causes as well as specific incidents of sexual violence. In 2019, Dr. Deborah Pepler did a review of what we know about all forms of violence against children for a national consultation. Pepler is a retired director of PrevNet, a network of researchers and organizations delving into bullying. Her research and many years of experience indicate that the causes of sexual violence against children, like other forms of violence, involve many factors. Addressing the causes of violence requires understanding the circumstances in which vulnerable children live, as well as analysis of specific incidents. Preventing sexual violence involves addressing the factors that contribute to violence in all its forms. From a child’s perspective, sexual violence comprises any sexual experiences that they do not comprehend and cannot consent to, often involving an adult or someone in a position of power. This includes coercion to participate in sexual acts, unwanted touching or advances, sexual exploitation, and sexual harassment.

We have four national strategies that address aspects of sexual violence against children:

  1. National Strategy for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation on the Internet
  2. Strategy to Prevent and Address Gender-Based Violence
  3. Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking 2019 -2024
  4. Canada’s Roadmap to End Violence Against Children

Efforts to stop internet sexual exploitation tend to focus on:

  • Cybertip, a national tipline.
  • Project Arachnid, a program that trawls the dark web to find and remove images of child abuse.
  • The prosecution of predators who lure children online.
  • Public education resources on the dangers of the internet.

The family-violence component of the Strategy to Prevent and Address Gender-Based Violence includes pilot projects to identify and expand good practices in responding to children who experience sexual abuse in the home, although it focuses primarily on violence against women. Teen dating violence and the use of sexual images in cyber-bullying are other areas receiving attention to raise public awareness and identify effective responses.

More promising for prevention is a stronger focus on empowerment and prevention in the new national Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking 2019-2024. These were included after an evaluation of an earlier four-year strategy, done in 2016-2017, found too little focus on prevention to meet its objectives. The first strategy focused more on finding and prosecuting offenders. The prevention pillar will support public awareness programs and pilot projects designed to reduce the vulnerability of youth at higher risk of exploitation. Under the empowerment component of the new strategy, youth hackathons will be used to raise awareness about trafficking and teach children about their rights.

We know that teaching children about their rights makes them less vulnerable to exploitation. But teaching children’s rights is not part of the regular curriculum in most provinces, according to a survey done by the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children. The very uneven access to comprehensive sexual education across Canada has created a critical gap in the prevention of sexual violence against children.

Comprehensive sex education has been shown to help prevent sexual violence. It allows children to develop a positive understanding of human sexuality, know the difference between consensual and abusive experiences, and use practical measures to help prevent sexual violence. Not only does access and quality vary widely in Canada, as interviews with young people have shown, there is no effective mechanism to ensure that children’s right to access such information is fulfilled. It falls through the cracks of federalism: provinces are responsible for education, and the federal government is primarily responsible for how Canada implements children’s rights. Children have a right to access information they need, including information that helps to prevent sexual exploitation, under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Canada ratified 30 years ago, but implementation of it remains weak across Canada. It also includes other provisions that would help to prevent sexual violence.

Our piecemeal approach to public policy is too incoherent and uncoordinated to be effective. Children’s lives are not neatly compartmentalized the way these strategies are. The possibility of some coherence and coordination from the perspective of children could come through Canada’s Roadmap to End Violence Against Children, but right now improving co-ordination is a one-line statement, not a plan. The Roadmap draws on the international INSPIRE framework, which has helped other countries, such as Sweden, make more progress than Canada in ending all forms of violence against children.

The right to grow up without sexual violence is every child’s human right. All Canada’s well-intentioned initiatives would benefit from putting children at the centre and treating them as persons with dignity and rights rather than objects of care or victims of a few evil adults. A rights-based approach is the foundation for the #MeToo movement and other women’s rights movements, but it has yet to be taken seriously in public policy for children at federal and provincial levels in Canada.

One hopeful note is the recognition that sexual violence is a violation of human rights in the final report of the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. One of its recommendations is full implementation of children’s rights as well as women’s rights and The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The federal government has promised an action plan to implement the report in June 2020. Time will tell whether the action plan will be yet another piece in a jigsaw puzzle that never makes a full picture or whether it will be a paradigm shift in how Canada deals with sexual violence against children.

This article is part of the Improving Canada’s response to sexualized violence special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock by Eric Crudup


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